Wednesday night saw a goalfest at the Sydney Football Stadium as France and Panama came together in the final group stage game of a tense Group F. While everyone else was watching the crunch game between Brazil and Jamaica, this mis-match between two teams at opposite ends of the football spectrum threw up some fabulous drama.
Wasting no opportunity to suggest that AFL is more important to Australians than the real world game, the oval at Moore Park next to the Sydney Football Stadium had footie practice stubbornly going on as the FIFA roadshow happened across the fence. There were plenty of interested people watching and wondering exactly what this sport was, and there were analysts making notes on their trestle table, unperterbed by the goings on around them as spectators started to arrive.
It was close to 7pm, and I had until then to pick up my ticket, so there was no time to dwell in the fan zone, although it was much quieter than it had been for previous games, especially those involving Colombia.
Entering through the media gate underneath the stadium, the path to the media centre is not obvious, and certainly not glamorous, but I was up there in the ticket office in time and grabbed some cut-price sushi from the media cafe to watch the final dramatic moments of the South Africa v Italy game on the TV. Heading up to level 4 and into the media tribunes, the view was spectacular, almost right on the halfway line.
The stadium, and the media tribunes, were sparsely populated, but we still had a long tim before kick off. By 6.50pm, the stadium was still looking quite bare, blue seats everywhere, and the orchestrated pre-game sequence began.
We had the Welcome to Country, although with no smoke this time, and the words “…welcome, welcome, welcome” spoken proudly by the elder were met with generous applause. There were Panama fans, but only a small pocket of active fans, on the opposite side at halfway; the French fans were not obvious, and there was no clearly visible group for the cameras to zoom in on. The large flag in place in the middle, the gender equality flag and the FIFA flag were then brought out together, along with the flags of each country, walked over to thir respective benches and tilted on an angle.
The players walked out with their mascots, all mascots in the same dark blue uniform and wearing orange boots. The anthems were great, the Panama players in tears, the French with puffed chests at their emotion-filled national song. The mascots then left the field, walking hand in hand in a line, like baby elephants. There were two minutes to kick off and the players assembled for their team shots in front of the pack of photographers next to the respective benches.
The Beyond Greatness sign was carried off in the correct order and the rest of the field was cleared, leaving only the players, ready for kick off. The Sydney Football Stadium field has never looked so good. It is divided into a chequered pattern, with ten strips in each half, parallel with the half way line, that almost perfectly lined up with the penalty areas. With fourteen strips running from goal to goal, with the join between the 7th and 8th running through the penalty spot, the symmetry was spectacular.
The football match itself was set on fire in the second minute when Marta Cox unleashed an unbelievable free kick over the wall and into the top left hand corner of the goal from 30 yards. I was out of my seat punching the air in disbelief. A quick glance at the live league table and France were heading out, with Brazil and Jamaica tied at 0-0. Of course, there was still a long way to go, but this was the moment that this occasion needed to kick start a great game of football. The stadium was looking quite full 15 minutes into the game as the game became a practice match for the French. The equaliser was unfortunate, Deysire Salazar deflecting into her own net when her goalkeeper looked odds-on to save.
Kadidatou Diani was on fire up the right and dug out the second goal for the French, firing in off the bar under pressure, and a very soft penalty was converted by Diani soon after to virtually end the game as a contest. Lea Le Garrec’s long teasing cross then bounced straight in as Elisa de Almeida was being man-handled by her defender and 4-1 was just about right on the balance of play at half time
The music came on blasting at 100 decibels as soon as the whistle went. It was impossible to hold a conversation. The ball crew in grey all ran in unison around the field to half way, each holding a ball and disappearing into the tunnel.
Half time saw a substitution for Panama; this World Cup has seen the removal of first names when referring to players at substitutions, perhaps in solidarity with Canada’s Quinn, but it is a pain in the arse for spectators and media alike. A bit impersonal too. This was by now the perfect game for a Mexican Wave, France miles ahead and the crowd in need of a lift. Sure enough the wave started and the noise grew. The award of a dubious penalty then gave France another opportunity, how on earth Wendy Natis was meant to predict that her opponent would fluff the header so badly that it hit her arm – there was absolutely no suggestion that it was deliberate, but VAR ruled that it was a spot kick. The poor referee had to pause for some time to make herself heard, as the Mexican wave was powering around the stadium. She cleared her throat like a school teacher in front of a rowdy classroom and announced the spot kick, which Diani slotted for her hat-trick.
Carmen Montenegro received a whack in the face and was down for a while. Erika Hernandez, with the massive hair, arrived as a sub. A volunteer carrying the mixed zone sign did the rounds very early to say that the mixed zone was opening – experience says you don’t need to be in there until after kick off.
Riley Tanner was then smashed into from behind to win a penalty. Yomira Pinzon took the penalty before the referee had signalled, the referee standing with arms out as if to say “why did you do that?”. She made no mistake from the second penalty too, amid big celebrations, but she was straight in the book a minute later after a nasty chop on her opponent. This was brilliant drama.
Keeper Yenith Bailey got a boot to the hand, but recovered seconds later to tip a long-range effort over the bar. There were surely more goals to come. Cox was writhing in agony at one point, then noticed that she had been awarded the free-kick in a dangerous position and leapt to her feet to claim the ball. Not a moment for football to be proud of, especially in a country so steeped in contact sports.
When Lineth Cedeno stooped to finish on the rebound to make it 5-3, the celebrations were intense – the whole Panama team and the bench raced to the corner. Of course the flag was up and the referee patiently waited for VAR to review the footage, the Panama players pumping up the crowd to make some noise during the extended stoppage. On our monitors in the media tribune, we could see the moment, to be honest it appeared to be offside, but the goal was awarded anyway.
Every touch by France was booed towards the end, every touch by Panama cheered as the neutrals in the crowd sided with the team in red. The board showing 13 minutes of added time sent a lot of fans to the exits, but they would have missed a cracker as Vicki Becho guided a superb cross from Eve Perisset into the net for 6-3. The media tribunes were transfixed on laptops showing the Brazil game, and sure enough Jamaica had done enough. The sight of Becho running to the corner flag to waste time brought more boos from the crowd, but that was the final act of an enthralling game.
The Panama players were on their knees in prayer at the final whistle, before racing to their pocket of fans and joiing them in the stands to celebrate this fantastic World Cup journey. Two very difficult games against Brazil and France, and they had acquitted themselves very well in both despite losing by three goals.
My decision to head to the mixed zone was vindicated when there were very few journalists and very eager French players, and I was able to join conversations with a number of players, first Elisa De Almeida who was asked if a potential match-up with Germany scared her; she agreed that it would be a good game. Amel Majri spoke at length, saying that they had faith in their attackers, but they had made plenty of errors tonight. Was she wary of Germany came the question again, and of course she said no, and that her team was very capable. Maelle Lakrar said that whilst they conceded three goals, they had qualified – the next match will be a big game, and the most important thing was to qualify. The final player was Kadidiatou Diani, with the blue braids, who had scored a hat-trick and was very happy, the French journalists continuing with the questions regarding Germany; it was time to leave.
Coming back through the media gate, the scene at the bottom of the stairs on Driver Avenue were subdued. This was no Colombia vs Germany. The light rail was busy but the queue moved, and I was back home by 11.30pm after the dream changeover at Central onto a waiting train.
So, what did this experience tell me? It reminded me that the FIFA World Cup roadshow is a well-oiled machine. It reminded me that Colombia’s support is incredible. It reminded me that a halfway line seat is a great way to enjoy the action as a neutral. I had seen a Marta goal on the night Brazil exited the tournament, and it was a goal that the Brazilian legend would have been very proud of. That’s it for the group stages for me; next time will be back at Sydney Football Stadium for Netherlands v South Africa on Sunday at lunchtime as the knock-out stages begin and the excitement intensifies as extra time and penalties come into play. Bring it on!